Standard goal-setting advice is to come up with a definition of achieving your goal that’s specific and measurable, then work backwards to make a plan for how you’ll get there.

In most cases, this is great advice.

But for one of the most important subjects there is – the success of your own life – I believe you should do the opposite. Some degree of vagueness and a lack of a plan will actually increase your chances of success.

Read on to find out how – and to learn why Richard Branson might be one of the biggest failures in the history of the world…

A 4-step plan for success

In his book “Sell It Like Serhant”, New York real estate broker Ryan Serhant writes:

I’ve wanted to be successful since I was about four years old. Did I have any clue about how I was going to make that happen? None whatsoever…It turns out that choosing success first – and letting the career follow – was one of the best things I could have done for myself. It forced me to be open about how that success would come.

Ryan Serhant

At first, this sounds crazy. How can you just choose to be successful? It sounds way too vague. Isn’t that the very opposite of a SMART goal?

Actually though, as a first step I think it makes a lot of sense: a lot more sense than deciding you’re going to be an award-winning actor, or a high-flying lawyer.

Here’s why, and which steps I’d follow it up with.

1: Decide to be successful

That’s it: decide that success is something you’re going to pursue and achieve.

Even though it’s easy to sneer at for being too vague, it still accomplishes two important things:

  1. You commit to taking responsibility. You’re not going to just accept whatever comes your way by default. You’re going to be the one who does things, not the one who things are done to.
  2. You commit to doing what it takes. What does it take? Who knows! We haven’t got to that bit yet. But you’re going to do it – not just do whatever is easiest, or whatever everyone else is doing.

2: Define what success means to you

Derek Sivers once said that to know if someone is successful, you need to know what they were trying to achieve. If Richard Branson was aiming for a quiet life where he’d potter around and tend to his garden, he’s one of the biggest failures in the world.

So, you need to define your version of success:

  • How much money do you want to have?
  • How do you want to spend your days?
  • What do you want to learn?
  • Who do you want to be surrounded with?
  • What impact do you want to make on people?
  • How will you know if you’re on track?
  • What do you want to be said about you after you’re gone?

This step – deciding what you actually want – is the hardest of all. Far harder than actually doing what it takes to be successful. Your definition of success will probably change over time, and that’s OK. You just need a starting point.

3: Study others who’ve achieved your kind of success

Most people you’d typically call “successful” have many behaviours in common:

Read a lot.
Ask questions.
Have structured days.
Don’t watch much TV.

So whatever type of success you want, you can safely do all of those.

But what about the bigger choices made by people who’ve achieved different types of success?

What different things have people done to make lots of money?
Or to make an impact on a lot of people?
Or to have the most relaxed and easy lifestyle?
Or to do whatever your kind of success is?

Find those people, and study their choices. Books, articles, podcasts, documentaries, people you know…there are lots of ways to find people whose success you’d like to replicate, and note down how they’ve gone about doing it.

4: Try something. Anything. Then the next thing.

This is where the “choose success then back into a career” idea comes back in.

The chances of you being able to pick right profession / career path / entrepreneurial venture / world-improving mission upfront are low. Very low.

Far better not to stress about it, and just say “yes” to opportunities as they come along. Each opportunity will lead to the next, until you end up in the place you wanted to go via a route you never could have expected.

Take me: it turns out presenting a podcast, writing books and owning property businesses ticks all my “success” boxes. But was it all a grand plan? No!

It only happened because I said “yes” to presenting a podcast with some guy I’d just met, which only came about because I said “yes” to starting my own blog, which only came about because I said “yes” to quitting what I was doing and moving to New York, which I could only do because I’d previously said “yes” to co-founding a business with someone who had a great idea.

Life only makes sense backwards, but you have to live it forwards.

Of course, because you took the trouble to define your version of success first, you can do some filtering rather than just saying “yes” indiscriminately: if you want to have a stress-free and flexible life, going into investment banking probably isn’t smart.

So those are your steps:

  1. Choose success
  2. Define your kind of success (the hardest step)
  3. Study others who’ve already done it
  4. Say “yes” to opportunities that have a chance of moving you in the right direction

Have you arrived at success in a way you never could have predicted? Fill in the form and let me know!

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